It is hard to ignore the wave of protests that have been springing up across Europe recently in retaliation for poor prices and unfair trading practices across many sectors. The French in particular have a militant attitude to voicing their despair at the issues affecting them.
As farmers, we often operate in our own little bubble, beavering away to produce milk, meat or crops – products that are consumed by billions of people every day as a basic necessity of life. But beyond our farm gates, the food industry balloons from small producers into massive multinational companies who control every aspect of the food chain, driving demand for different products and supplying food to the public in the most profitable guise.
Of course it is not practicable or even sensible to produce every farm commodity in each region to supply only the population of that area. Globalisation of food production is a fact of life and, in many cases, it makes perfect sense. Even with our lovely Cornish climate I doubt I could manage a decent crop of mangoes, or even soya. What does seem ridiculous though is the control that large processing and retailing corporations have over a massive number of producers.
The current system broadly relies upon small family production units who feed into large processing companies who feed into even larger retail corporations. The balance of power and control is weighted firmly against us, making producers price takers rather than price makers, regardless of our own production costs. The retail price that the public have been conditioned to expect to pay bears very little correlation to the actual cost of producing the raw material and rarely takes account of seasonal variation. Lamb is perhaps the easiest sector to see this, where the farmers’ share of the retail price has fallen dramatically, as has the wholesale price; the shelves are stuffed full of imported lamb when home production is at its peak.
Of course, in order to supply the population with consistent access to food, distribution and marketing has to be managed in such a way as to ensure the public can buy it at an affordable price, and large-scale retailers are the way our nation has evolved to deal with that. I very much doubt that we will ever rid ourselves of the supermarket and I’m sure that we wouldn’t really want to. I would be lost without access to a ready supply of pre-packaged food to fling at my raucous offspring while in the midst of silaging and I really can’t see myself baking bourbon biscuits, certainly not at the rate that William consumes them.
However, the balance of power does need to be addressed. We farmers are a stoic lot – farming requires a level of resilience that would see most people buckle, and that’s when things are going reasonably well. Recent protests are a sign that things are getting really dire across many farms. Yet I find myself wondering why it is only when things get horrendously bad that we are spurred to direct action?
It seems that we have almost sleepwalked into this situation where price volatility engineered by multinational corporations to maximise profits has left the producers hurtling from boom to bust in terms of farmgate prices over the last few years. I would never advocate a return to intervention buying and government control of commodity trading. We live and trade in a global market and that is a fact of life we shouldn’t hide from. That said, we should never have let big business sneak control away from the farm gate.
It has been heartening over the past few weeks to see British farmers finding their voice and staging some truly innovative protests to get our message out there. I have been sharing them online as have many others and social media will certainly be the catalyst for the change we all so desperately need. We can communicate so easily with our real customers and they are starting to take notice.
The #milktrolleychallenge is a fantastic example of how we can disrupt the control supermarkets have on our dairy industry and, by giving it away at the front of the store, we can make a direct connection with so many people. We can share those videos online and the message goes viral. Maybe the next step should be to take the protest to the capital.
I believe the key to effective protest that will drive change is to take the public with us. After all, they are our customers and we need each other. The processors and supermarkets should change their outlook to being one that serves the needs of their producers and customers.
Militant, French-style protests do nothing but alienate the public. It might grab headlines but is the image of British agriculture that we want to put out there really of a muck spreader painting a supermarket or a motorway held up by £70k tractors? Or would we rather stand outside a supermarket handing out our products to our customers with the message of friendship and mutual benefit. We must not underestimate the power of our customers when fighting the chokehold the supermarkets have on our families.
I’m sure we will see many more creative and innovative protests in the months ahead and social media will make sure our message reaches the boardrooms and the kitchens of everyone who eats in Britain.
Jess and her husband Will run 75 suckler cows on an 80ha National Trust farm on the Devon/Cornwall border. They have two children, Edward and Lydia. Jess has a degree in rural business management and enjoys horse riding in her spare time.